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Pink toenails, gender identity and social responsibility

Those who urge businesses to adopt social missions ought to be careful what they wish for.

This one’s a real tempest in a teapot. Or rather, in a bottle of nail polish.

OK, so here’s the short version. Clothing chain J. Crew’s latest catalog includes a picture of president and creative director Jenna Lyons painting her young son’s toenails pink. Yes, pink — the colour most closely associated, in North American culture, at least, with traditional femininity. Criticism ensued, alleging that J. Crew was acting (intentionally!) to promote a gender-bending agenda. The calibre and cogency of the arguments in favour of that conclusion is about what you’d expect.

The main critic, Fox commentator and psychiatrist Dr Keith Ablow, provides an object lesson in how to cram as many argumentative fallacies as possible into a single piece of writing, in his oddly-titled editorial, “J. Crew Plants the Seeds for Gender Identity”. (I’ve blogged about the significance of logical fallacies before, here.) Among the good doctor’s fallacious arguments:

He alleges, without substantiation, that pink-toenail-painting is highly likely to result in gender confusion. In the absence of supporting evidence, we are expected to believe him because he’s got “Dr” in front of his name — essentially a form of illicit appeal to authority. He also engages in straw man argumentation (in which a critic attacks something his opponent never said nor implied), by suggesting that, via this ad, “our culture is being encouraged to abandon all trappings of gender identity” [my emphasis]. He also begs the question by assuming that pink is just for girls (and I’m wearing pink as I write this, by the way). He also has an unfortunate tendency to resort to rhetorical questions: “If you have no problem with the J. Crew ad, how about one in which a little boy models a sundress? What could possibly be the problem with that?” (What if my answer is “nothing”? Ablow provides nothing to help me, then.) Ablow also commits the fallacy known as appeal to ignorance when he points out that the effect of “homogenizing males and females … is not known” (i.e., we don’t know that it’s safe, so it is probably unsafe.) He also makes use of an illicit slippery slope argument, suggesting comically that ads such as this are somehow going to result in the end of all procreation, and, hence, of the human race. And Ablow’s argument as a whole amounts to one giant, fallacious, appeal to tradition. I could quite literally teach the entire Fallacies section of my Critical Thinking class just by having students pick apart Ablow’s critique of the J. Crew ad.

(Note that another critic, Erin Brown, over at the conservative Culture and Media Institute, commits fewer fallacies, but only because her article is shorter. But then she apparently doen’t even know what J. Crew is, referring to the men’s and women’s clothier as a “popular preppy woman’s clothing brand.” I happen to own two J. Crew ties. Men’s ties.)

Now, my response to the critics of J. Crew’s ad may seem flippant. So be it. Sometimes ridicule is the best response to something ridiculous. But there is a serious point to be made, here, about the social responsibility of business.

Ablow and Brown share one important view in common with many critics of modern capitalism, namely this: they all believe that businesses have an obligation to pursue certain social agendas. They merely disagree over what that agenda should be. For Ablow and Brown, the social obligation of business is to defend and promote good ol’-fashioned American values, including apparently carefully scripted gender roles. For critics of capitalism, the social obligation of business is to promote social justice, environmental values, gender equality, and so on. In either case, those who urge businesses to adopt social missions — as opposed to merely making and selling stuff that people want to buy, within the bounds of law and ethics — ought to be careful what they wish for. Because if and when businesses do take up social agendas, they may not be the agendas that those advocates prefer.


Thanks to Laura for showing me this story.